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WCMA Notes: Great Potential and Growing Pains for Emerging Dairy Sheep Industry

A Column Offered by WCMA Executive Director John Umhoefer

Behind rich, award-winning wheels and delicate fresh sheep’s milk cheeses from Wisconsin stands a sheep farming industry struggling with price and profitability.

“The industry is in a serious place right now,” Laurel Kieffer told WCMA recently. “We need a coming together on milk quality and components from the farm and price incentives from cheesemakers that allow dairies to stay in business.”

Kieffer, a long-established Wisconsin dairy sheep farmer sold her flock in the last 12 months and formed a new promotion group in August 2016, the Sheep Marketing Association of Wisconsin. Kieffer wishes to build a bridge between the farmer, cheesemaker and consumers, noting “We all have a responsibility in this equation.”

For Anna Landmark, who along with Anna Thomas Bates owns Landmark Creamery, the equation doesn’t add up. “Every time we go to a retail show, every buyer is looking for sheep’s milk cheese,” Landmark said. But despite strong demand, “Things feel tenuous on the farm side right now.” The price that farms need is difficult to align with a price point buyers and consumers will accept, she explained.

Bob Wills, owner of Cedar Grove Dairy in Plain, Wis., is hopeful. “We’re finding more and more demand for our sheep milk cheeses. Entries in cheese competitions are growing and quality is improving for these domestics.” He points to the dispersed geography of farms and the lack of marketing as issues impacting growth in the category and the health of farms.

The “dean” of dairy sheep researchers, Prof. Dave Thomas, agrees. “The challenge in the dairy sheep industry is the small amount of producers and the small amount of milk produced. …One of the things everyone must do is find a stable market – processing at the farm or with a local processor willing to buy sheep milk.” Thomas, recently retired Professor of Sheep Management and Genetics with the University of Wisconsin, offered the comment in a March 2017 webinar on dairy sheep farming in the U.S.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Wisconsin has 14 licensed dairy sheep farms, with fewer than 5,000 milking ewes in the state.

It’s a little industry with big challenges; facing big demand with little supply.

Dairy sheep farming is relatively new in the U.S., with the founding of the North American Dairy Sheep Association just 30 years ago as a reasonable marker for the beginnings of the industry. And while a consumer may see cow, goat and sheep milk cheese featured side-by-side in upscale cheese islands at retail grocers, sheep’s milk is more rare, and production more scarce, than most may realize.

In his spring webinar, Prof. Thomas estimated national sheep milk production at 9.4 million pounds in 2016. That’s roughly equivalent to all cow’s milk produced in Kansas in one day. This sheep milk production has the potential to produce about 2 million pounds of cheese per year, the amount of cow’s milk cheese Wisconsin produces in 5 hours.

But Thomas sees the upside potential.  Imports of European sheep’s milk cheese exceed 70 million pounds, including favorites such as Roquefort from southern France, Pecorino Romano from Sardinia and Manchego from Spain. Manchego and “other sheep milk cheeses” were two of the top three fastest growing exact-weight cheese categories in 2016, based on retail scanner data compiled by Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.

Landmark Creamery is betting on success.  The owners are nearly finished renovating retail space in Paoli, Wis., that will feature their line of sheep’s milk cheeses, and new minted packaging and production space in the building will allow for growth, particularly in bloomy rind cheeses.

Yet despite the potential, dairy sheep farms lack the economies of scale to make milk at a price point where domestic cheeses can compete head-to head with the dominant cheese imports. “I feel it on both sides,” award-winning cheesemaker Brenda Jensen told WCMA. “I struggle to pay my own farm a price for milk that turns a profit while, as a cheesemaker, I look for buyers that will accept the price my cheese needs.”

Jensen founded Hidden Spring Creamery in 2005 and her Driftless line of soft, flavored sheep’s milk cheeses has been a hit. Brenda now manages the Westby, Wis. farm and creamery founded with her husband Dean, housing 800 ewes with 300 giving milk at any one time.

“We’d like to have 2,000 sheep, but we’ve reached a level where finding good labor has become an issue,” Jensen said.  The farm employees two full-time and three part-time hands, and the labor-intensive tasks of milking, lambing, feeding and cleaning require employees that can work hard and be proficient in multiple skills. “I could also use help in the creamery, but I’m pretty particular about finding the right fit,” she said with a laugh.

Like many specialty cheesemakers, Jensen has reached a plateau where major investment, such as packaging equipment, is needed to lift the creamery to the next level of production. “People taste our cheese and fall in love,” she noted. “We can make a profit, but it’s an awful lot of work to make a little money. Luckily,” she adds, “I like to work.”

This column will conclude next month with a look at the promise of new sheep genetics coming to the U.S.